Empire Strikes Back is generally regarded as the best of the ‘Star Wars’ films, and for good reason. This is where the fun space adventure of the original film becomes something grander: something epic, yet without losing the adventure and excitement of the original.
The film, as the title indicates, shows the Empire hunting the Rebels (something I noticed this time around is that the title scroll’s account of the Empire “driving the Rebels from their base” in the wake of the Death Star’s destruction makes perfect sense, since even though the Death Star was destroyed, the Empire still knows where the Rebels are now. Just the first example of the care that went into the film’s script). We open with the Empire dispatching ‘probe droids’ throughout the galaxy, followed soon by Luke, on the barren ice world of Hoth, being ambushed and dragged off by a huge yeti-like monster. This opening, though not as immediately striking as the original’s, sets the stage at once: we’re now in uncertain territory, with powerful forces lying in wait to prey upon our heroes, who have to rely on each other and, in Luke’s case, his emerging knowledge of the Force.
The cast we met in the first film are back, and their relationships have grown. The characterization here is really fantastic, especially with Han Solo. When we met him in the first film, he was essentially selfish and kind of a prick. Here, he clearly cares about the rebels, but is now seeking to return to his old life to try to square the debts he left behind (he briefly alludes to their having run into a bounty hunter in between films, showing that the as-yet-unseen Jabba is closing in on him). Basically, Han still wants to be able to save his own skin. But he’s grown to the point where he’s willing to risk his life for his friends (as when he rushes out into the blizzard to save Luke, foreshadowing how Luke will later rush to Bespin to save Han). Then from the point where they leave Hoth, his entire motivation is essentially trying to protect Leia and find a way to get her back to the main Rebel force (who have fled to a safe location). This further strips away his remaining selfishness until, even when it looks like he’s about to die, his first thought is still her.
Han really shines as a hero during the long middle section of the film, where, with his ship’s hypderdrive on the fritz, he has to rely on his wits and skill to escape the Empire at sublight speed. This part of the movie creates a real sense of being constantly on the ropes as one by one his gambits manage to only buy a little time for frantic repair attempts before the Empire closes in (by the way, this time around I realized the asteroid field is foreshadowed when the rebellion general comments on how much meteor activity there is in the area).
Meanwhile, Luke is going on his own journey, delving deeper into the Force with his new master Yoda (rightly celebrated not only for his unforgettable personality, but also for the wonderful puppetry that makes him seem little less alive than anyone else). In so doing, Luke learns not only more about the Force, but just how far he might be vulnerable to the influence of the Dark Side.
All the while, we spend much more time with Darth Vader, seeing him pursue the heroes across the galaxy, but always first and foremost after Luke. His almost fanatical pursuit of the Millennium Falcon is, at the end of the day, as a means to lure Luke into a trap.
Like in the first film, all this works fine on a surface level, but when you start to think about it, and especially after you learn the infamous ‘reveal’ at the end, it all takes on a new and stronger significance.
The main thrust of the film is the overwhelming power of the Empire, assuring us right away that, despite the destruction of the Death Star, the villains are still oppressively dangerous. Like in the first film, we have some excellent visual storytelling: early on we see a fleet of Star Destroyers, those same huge, terrifying ships we met in the opening of the first film. Then we see that one of them is being eclipsed by the shadow of something even larger, whereon we cut to a Super Star Destroyer some ten-times the size of the others. Even without the Death Star, the Empire is incredibly powerful.
On the subject of visual storytelling, consider the famous Battle of Hoth that ends the first act: we have the Empire coming out to fight in these huge, lumbering walkers like mechanical elephants. They’re monstrous and seemingly unstoppable, like something out of a kaiju film. Meanwhile, the rebels are just men in trenches, or in aircraft; not that far removed from wars we’re familiar with. Once again, the visuals alone tell us all we need to know about the situation (a side note; this is one reason the stormtroopers wear masks: to convey the faceless conformity of the Empire).
This fight also continues the surprisingly grounded nature of the world; there was care taken in thinking how these ships work, and making them look battered and used. The Rebel base, like the ones in the first film, is crowded and busy, and throughout the film we have plenty of scenes of Han, Leia, and Chewie fiddling with the guts of the Falcon, trying to jury-rig the battered ship into working. We have no idea what they’re doing, but it looks like the sort of thing someone would have to do to fix a real spaceship. There’s one bit where Leia tries to force a stiff part of the ship back into place, then winces as she sucks a pinched finger. It happens incidentally, while she’s talking to Han, but it feels so real because we’ve all had moments like that. It’s just another little detail that makes this world feel so much more alive than most fantasy films (or most non-fantasy films for that matter).
Then, of course, there’s that twist. I don’t think I need to caution you on it; rare is the adult who doesn’t know it. This reveal may rather raise some questions about the earlier film (though I don’t think any that can’t be smoothed over), but that really doesn’t matter compared to just how much it benefits not only this movie but the series as a whole. Luke’s vision in the cave, Yoda’s sad likening him to his father, Vader’s fanatical pursuit of Luke, his arguing to turn him rather than kill him, and the way he holds back during their fight, all of these work fine the first time; you don’t question them, but they then rise to new levels of significance when we learn the truth.
Not only that, but they hint at something else; even as Darth Vader is being one of the most intimidating villains in all of cinema, murdering his subordinates with nothing but wry comments and pursuing and torturing our heroes with cold implacability, this reveal hints that his motives were not wholly malevolent. That, perhaps, there is something else still in there.
All that will be built on in the next film, but for now perhaps an even bigger twist is that the film doesn’t have a happy ending. Most of the heroes escape to fight another day, but they do so wounded in body and spirit, and the future is very much in question. You could have stopped at the end of the first film and people would have been satisfied with the story (though Vader’s escaping would have been a dangling thread people would wonder about). Not so here; here there is clearly an ending still to come.
So, in summary, yes, this is a fantastic movie and one of the best sequels of all time. It takes the original film and builds on it in ways the audience probably didn’t expect, deepening the relationships and themes while giving us more of the same action, adventure, and humor we loved in the first film, but in different ways and different doses. There’s less ship combat and more Force powers, for instance; more monsters and less alien communities. If the first film was a textbook in general storytelling, this one is a textbook in how to do a sequel.